EMBODIED KNOWLEDGE: WHAT IT IS & WHY IT IS PHENOMENALLY IMPORTANT
By Robert B. Elliott
In 1998, two brilliant scientists co-wrote a book entitled, “Philosophy in the Flesh”, in which they introduced the world to a radically more enlightened way of thinking about a whole range of things having to do with the way humans come to view and understand the world around them. Their insights and illumination regarding several aspects of thought and human behavior will require decades for even many scientists to comprehend and process fully. The author’s names are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, a linguist and a neuroscientist respectively, although both have a wealth of knowledge and training in other fields.
Our philosophy in both the narrow and broader sense cannot be divorced from our flesh, literally meaning our individual bodies, despite generations of having been conditioned to see thought or mental process as completely separate somehow from the physical universe and from any part of our bodies or brains.
A brilliant Descartes, working with the poorly developed biological and other science of his day, which wasn’t yet clearly distinguished adequately from philosophy and religion, formulated a view of mind or cognition and intellectual material that was completely independent from the physical universe. We have mistakenly stuck with his badly flawed conception ever since. The revelations outlined in this new seminal work of genius completely reversing Descartes’ logical errors have yet to become more than a blip within the consciousness of a few scientists or ordinary citizens.
Descartes lacked the benefit of the many discoveries to come after his death and the tools that scientists possess today to study mental processes and brain functions. His beliefs that thinking and knowledge were somehow external to humans derived directly from ancient philosophical conclusions which saw God as the ultimate source of all knowledge and the “spirit” as a manifestation of God’s influence on man through something akin to what we might call mental telepathy. As unscientific as it may seem to our eyes and ears now, it is still the foundation for most popular and institutional conceptions relative to cognition in 2016!
There is that word; “knowledge” used casually in the last sentence of the first paragraph. Anyone reading Lakoff and Johnson’s amazing book will never think of knowledge in the same way again as in the past. Until now, the misconceived default position nearly universally has been that knowledge is to be found in external sources produced by scholars or “knowledgeable individuals”, and subsequently retrieved from those sources by students, observers, or the curious to make them knowledgeable in turn.
Knowledge, in the traditional view allegedly resides in various media, such as books, ancient texts, incisive lectures delivered by prestigious authorities in particular fields of expertise, magazines, etc., or it is preserved within and transmitted through other types of media, such as in tribal oral narratives in which language or symbols are transmitted or stored and utilized in study by youth or students for the conveyance of concepts, ideas, thoughts, or information. We commonly refer to “it” (as I just did) as a thing. Lakoff and Johnson show conclusively and indisputably, however, that all knowledge is embodied (resides within a functioning living body with a sentient brain) and that anything not embodied is NOT knowledge. “It” is not a thing in the sense of a “body of knowledge” that one might seek to possess by some type of osmosis or absorption.
Information in the form of inert symbols is not and cannot be knowledge. Facts and data are merely information for processing by mental activity during contemplation, review, discussion, examination, and rumination. Intellectual acumen and wisdom are not replicated as easily or as methodically as we might like to believe. Knowledge is not some numinous body of great insight, information, or data that exists in a cloud somewhere to be tapped into by the right equipment or by being tuned into the proper wavelength. It only exists within the brain/mind/body of a living and breathing human being as part of a phenomenological whole. Knowledge is a cumulative, vibrant, and largely personal creation that combines or integrates existing conceptions and mental process with new input, ALWAYS resulting in “knowing” that is alive and different in many respects. Intelligence that is artificial or canned for later consumption may contain splendid ideas with which to work, analyze, and pursue goals, but it is not knowledge.
The word “consciousness” was also used casually in the second paragraph. Consciousness is a key concept in Lakoff and Johnson’s book which also takes on a whole new meaning and relevance when one integrates the novel information and insights these authors offer into one’s more ordinary conceptions of consciousness and into what we typically see as the unconscious mind.
The conscious and unconscious cannot be disentangled with any clear lines of demarcation during ordinary living events or processes. Unconscious thought processes are by definition below the level of awareness. Cognition includes much that is not linguistic in nature or traceable by recalling a “thought process” that is connected by concrete symbols, specific ideas, or identifiable images.
It is safe to assume that it is impossible for all cognition that a person experiences to ever be brought “to the surface” for deliberation and examination as linear thought in the way that one identifies all elements and aspects of a problem or thesis on a fully conscious level for any significant period of time, even by intense concentration. Indeed, we cannot even say that we have purely conscious thoughts that are not invariably accompanied by related cognitive activity that is completely ineffable and inaccessible.
Total and persistent concentration on a single level wherein processed language predominates to maintain a continuous flow of logical thought in a conscious self-dialogue minus the interaction or influences of feelings, belief-based thought from the distant past, and traces of mental images or vague perceptions or “inklings” that reside below the level of awareness is simply not humanly possible for any extended length of time, if at all. We think while we feel (or because of what we feel) and we have multiple complex processes involving memory and “knowledge” going on simultaneously much if not all of the time. Those processes involve impressions and ideas or both specific and non-specific memories and “impulses” or electrical brain activity that register consciously only partly and only through intentional effort and deliberate attentiveness.
We discover that much more of what we refer to as knowledge and what we conceive as mind reside within an intricate sensorimotor system of nerves, synapses, and chemicals that are part of the brain and body or that are connected inextricably to the body parts that are not brain (the mind/body connection that has previously been only poorly understood and only partially accepted). That knowledge and that “mind” exist MOSTLY below the level of conscious thinking or awareness much of the time typically, rather than in a linear flowing of language and cognition that is processed in computer-like fashion consciously. Mind that is fully tuned in to its own process and able to recall, track, and alter its process at will, as is the current common understanding of our awareness, is much more mythical than real.
Embodiment is anything but an exotic or esoteric concept. It is a safe bet that Sir Isaac Newton had had the experience of rolling down a grassy knoll or hanging onto a tree branch and dropping to the ground. Or, he surely had some other physical sensation of gravity or experience with magnetism that made the falling apple especially significant for him at a particular moment. Physical sensations and memory circuits unquestionably helped him make the cognitive connections that led to the idea of gravity as a force with which to be reckoned.
Anyone who has fallen out of a tree or taken a spill from a moving bicycle has an embodied knowledge about gravity that needs little explication with descriptive language, pictures, or diagrams in order to reach a basic comprehension of the underlying concept. That corporal knowledge is real knowing. It is felt by the body and preserved or remembered. It is useful (and essential, as in the essence of) for building a deeper or greater knowledge that can be appreciated, explored, and expanded. Knowledge is in large part metaphoric in that much or possibly all we know is known by the application of metaphors from our physical existence and experience.
It has been quite well understood for no small space of time that memory is embodied. Memory, of course is knowledge that is exclusively one’s own recording of events or of data points that have become available to the individual as internal information for possible later use or reminiscence. Early psychology experiments confirmed that memory involves synapses within the brain that have connections to other synapses and nerve networks which affect organic parts or larger primary organs allowing us to repeat movements or activities more or less automatically and to reflect back on our personal history and experience, anchoring us in time and space.
We know that memory is generally split into short-term and long-term memory and that either can be influenced by things both within or external to the body. Memory may also be factually in error or degraded over time by any number of factors, all understood as things affecting the elements of the physical body that created the memory initially. No one imagines that their vivid and sometimes detailed memories could ever be represented by mere words in a book or by pictures painted, even by them (from memory), with a degree of vitality and intricate detail anywhere near equal to their internal vision and recall capability, although some movie directors do an admirable job of trying.
The direct physical sensations and experience of the human body are the first and best teachers and are the origins of our intelligence and knowledge. We only become capable of thinking about concepts and aware of “reality” and relationships in our universe through the interaction of our bodies with our environment, physical and social. Ideas of full and empty; open and closed; directionality; time passage; freedom or constriction; movement or inertia; balance; temperature; pain or exhilaration; leverage; connection; rotation; light or dark; vision or blindness; inside or outside; good or bad; fresh or stale, and seemingly a million others are only available to us for construction and reconstruction in cognition after we have known via our OWN senses and organic functions within our OWN world some rudimentary or fundamental information about “things” and spaces and time and life.
Indeed, life is defined by movement. I once read an exciting book about the vibrations in the universe that brought some of this home to me in an especially meaningful way. Without the vibrations in atoms and organic matter of every form, there would surely be no life and no growth. The beating of the heart is a vibration. The word vibrant is a description of a radiation of life-force from an actively alive being.
There are vibrations at every level throughout the universe which affect our physical bodies in various ways and which occur within our bodies that may be essential to our existence. Light is vibration. Sound is vibration. Breathing is a kind of vibration. The author of the book prescribed dance as the only viable means for humanity to get back in tune with nature. He decried the growing lack of dance in our lives and the declines in such natural and integrated movement in space as the source of our ultimate demise, as I recall.
Can anyone imagine that there would be ideas such as “curved space”, the space-time continuum, or the General and Special Theories of Relativity had Einstein not jumped through hoops, climbed trees, danced, or walked, run, and played in a carefree manner in wide open spaces as a child? Would any of the great mathematicians or physicists before or since have been able to formulate extraordinarily complex theories and visualize in their mind’s eyes how they connect with inert mathematical formulae without having lived a rich and active life with direct connections to the physical environment? The precursors to the kind of limitless thought, imagination, and creativity that such great minds accomplish are most definitely the consequence of bodies exposed to a world that cannot be seen or experienced from the inside of a classroom.
It has been more than fifty years since various critics of our schools first complained that many educators (so-called) were treating education as a simple process of filling up empty heads with information, as if children were the “blank slates” on which teachers could imprint their knowledge and as if knowledge were a tangible, identifiable, and determinate thing or a type of commodity to be purchased with enough money. Valiant efforts have been made to counteract that sort of pervasive misperception. However, success has been extremely elusive.
One of the reasons why progress has been stymied repeatedly is because of the difficulty educators have with thinking of knowledge in accordance with the latest science and with their (pathetic) inability to trust children to seek knowledge without prodding, browbeating, coercion, and attempts to frame it as something they can get from others without creating their own iterations. There are other reasons that must be discussed within a more elaborate framework, later, elsewhere.
Knowledge, in the still predominant view is presented as a set of facts that are principally immutable and objectively correct according to an accepted standard and consensus. However, that perception has serious flaws. If for example a biographer with a slight liberal bias and one with a mild conservative bias each write a biography of the same historical figure using the same records, letters and interviews, regardless of their professional ethics and capabilities, they will inevitably differ in how they see and interpret the subject and the consequential events of the careers and lives of their subject. The facts are clearly not set in stone, despite attempts to make them uniform and compatible and regardless of a perceived need to agree.
Even with respect to the great mathematicians and physicists and their monumental discoveries, there will always be gradations and shadings in how their ideas are condensed by themselves and others as text or formulae in books and records when certain aspects are broken down or analyzed for further understanding or for posterity. That anachronistic brand of “knowledge” is often on some very shaky ground (this is, for example, a handy metaphor that we all get because of physical experiences involving shaking and references to earthquakes) and involves controversy and conflict, depending on where it intersects with the real world. It can only become dogma that inhibits new knowledge when given that status.
Knowledge MUST be created anew by each student and scholar. That is one of the facts of life that some may find disconcerting or confusing. It requires a different way of looking at education, school, and many of the edifices and traditions of our culture and society. So be it. We can continue to undermine our most significant foundations for the future by following the dictates of an established intellectual and educational hierarchy, or we can acknowledge that things change continuously, along with the awareness, insights, interpretations, definitions, and formulations by which we each see the world and communicate our sight and insight to others. Our refusal to change and failure to learn or to accept the science and insight that is available to us now is a formula for catastrophe.
It has often been said that knowledge is power. There is great truth in that statement. However, knowledge is not what we have been taught to believe. Knowledge is an amalgam of the information provided via symbols and languages to an individual; of the second-hand discoveries of others as conveyed through some medium; of facts as discerned through thorough research and analysis from various fallible human or other sources, and of words of wisdom and insight from those going before us, combined with the fresh wisdom, experience, perception, thought process, science, and feeling that we each generate continuously as sentient individuals doing our best to form particular understandings and a holistic and comprehensive world-view. We each formulate our own answers to questions and problems in our world. To wish for some other way is to reject human nature.
Whatever we find, “out there” in our travels or studies may have been intended to encapsulate the knowledge that someone else has accumulated. We are wise to do our utmost to preserve the genius of an Einstein, or a Newton, the Dali Lama, or the heroes of classical literature. However, it is especially unwise to imagine that generations of children can absorb the knowledge of the leaders in various fields of endeavor with adequate precision and acuity and to become truly knowledgeable without having created their own personal knowledge that is exclusive to them first and that is to some extent non-transferrable or non-transmissible.
We use our senses to “make sense” of the world. Our senses are the physical means by which we sense what is in our physical and sensory environment, which includes our mental and emotional environment as well. There is no wall of separation whatsoever between the physical body and the mind. The reader’s senses, i.e., the five primary senses, and intuition or any other senses that exist, should by this point have sent a clear message to her or his brain that knowledge is indeed embodied. For each body/mind, that knowledge is somewhat special, unique, and non-transferrable. It is part of memory and part of an awareness and a world-view that necessarily changes over time and even moment to moment.
If this effort has been successful, assuming you had not been exposed to this input previously, you the reader have integrated this information and perspective into a new and important personal knowledge, which has just been produced by you for your own purposes in your own way using the understandings, beliefs, facts, emotional content, and intellectual capacity that is yours alone. You may find ways to spread the news to others and some may prefer to call that education. But, your knowledge can’t be perfectly replicated, nor should it be. Others may use the information that you offer in any number of other ways, depending on their particular experience, purposes, and interpretations.
For the record, we have developed an incredibly complex and confounding set of beliefs and myths about schools and education that are simply false. Our systems are dysfunctional in many respects and many children are poorly served or badly harmed as a result. While the neuroscience research discussed here is relatively new and revolutionary, many insightful observers and educators have already understood, if only intuitively, and have formerly tried to apply those same fundamental principles suggested by the new revelations over many generations, only to meet phenomenal resistance and frustration from traditionalists.
That resistance comes primarily from the bureaucracy and the authoritarian structures that exist primarily because of compulsory attendance laws. Until those counterproductive and unconstitutional laws are eliminated, no amount of learning and study will enable us to make meaningful changes to our institutions.
Attendance laws derive from highly erroneous beliefs about learning and knowledge. They require institutions with built-in factors that preclude many of the conditions necessary for knowledge acquisition based on individual initiative. There is no way to substitute for initiative or to manufacture it under compulsion. There is no way to pretend that compulsion isn’t actually coercive, paternalistic, and manipulative. Without initiative, engagement is contrived and conditional. Initiative is the engine that drives knowledge acquisition and knowledge acquisition feeds initiative. Movement is essential and a healthy body and mind allow the embodiment of knowledge, which most of traditional schooling cannot help but compromise.
DEFINING EDUCATION; A FOOL’S ERRAND
By Robert B. Elliott
When can we say with assurance that a person is educated? Is it merely a question of how many hours have been spent in instruction or school? Is it only when a document has been granted by an institution, such as a high school diploma or a college degree? Is a really bright school drop-out who has read extensively and studied independently, or managed to succeed in a field of business or a career, not educated simply for lack of an official certificate?
Can anyone truly say definitively and decisively what an education entails and where the line is drawn between an educated person and an ignorant, uneducated person? Are there specialized experts or scholars who have the ability to talk to a person or study their behavior in order to ascertain whether or not that person is educated, or whether or not one has achieved some verifiable intellectual or academic status that is elevated to a level that they alone can measure or evaluate? Do some individuals fail in the test for having become educated because they are missing some other esoteric quality or characteristic despite having met a given standard by virtue of some specific accomplishment or criteria?
What about someone such as the Uni-bomber, who while brilliant, is psychotic or a sociopath? Wasn’t he “well-educated”? How about Sean Hannity, who makes millions as a blustering and arrogant TV commentator, who has written a couple of books, but who is patently wrong about nearly everything (because of his lack of education as some of would define it and psychological handicaps that pervert his thinking process), and whose writing is inane and pedestrian, and whose thinking is shallow, childlike and illogical? How or why would anyone emulate and admire him as one who is “educated”?
These important questions illustrate issues that need to be examined and resolved if we are to achieve a level of education, for at least most of our citizenry that is optimal for our continued collective success and for our survival as a species. Currently, the concept of education is more fuzzy and subjective or arbitrary than anyone seems to appreciate. Now, let the discussion begin.
It’s Far More Complex and Convoluted Than Anyone Supposes
The word “education” is bandied about by ‘everybody and his brother’, with the bland assumption that everyone should be in agreement with respect to what that might mean. Yet, few of us can provide anything but the most general and vague definition for the concept to which we refer, and fewer still have any conception of the myriad shades and complexities that the word entails.
It seems as if there should be some consensus or parameters for what is meant by the word education that are agreed upon by at least a sizable majority of Americans. There are few things of greater importance in a society. However, most people rely on a highly simplistic view and only a tiny minority have studied in depth the various questions and controversies that surround the topic. There are huge controversies and many disagreements, in fact, relative to how education is best “administered”, or what children need in order to achieve their maximum potential with respect to education.
Webster’s College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, defines education as,
“1.) act or process of educating; instruction. 2.) the science of teaching: pedagogy.
Those rather vague explanations for the noun “education” don’t tell us much. Their definition for the verb, educate is only slightly more helpful. According to Webster, to educate is to, 1.) impart knowledge and training to: develop mentally and morally by instruction.
2.) send to school: provide schooling for.
Our questions from above go largely unanswered by these dictionary definitions or by any of the many panel discussions, magazine articles, books and other inquiries about schools and what is being called education.
In her recent blog entitled, “A Complete Guide to Pursuing Meaningful Education Reform”, Zoe Weil asks a series of insightful questions that get at some of the things that would seem to define education. She asks, “When you hear the words ‘“education reform”’ what do you think of? Ensuring that there is equity in schooling? That kids are becoming proficient in foundational subjects like reading, math, and science? That they are being prepared for 21st century challenges? That they learn to be critical and creative thinkers ready for a rapidly changing world? That they have excellent, inspiring teachers whom they respect and admire? That they graduate as compassionate, honest, knowledgeable, thoughtful global citizens ready and able to be solutionaries no matter what careers they pursue?”
Webster can be forgiven for having failed to distill education down without losing the most crucial elements. They have to rely on common usage and uncommon analysis. Weil, mentioned above has supposed that we can achieve education in schools by taking a more holistic and comprehensive approach to solving, simultaneously, all of the problems that have been identified by dozens of blue ribbon commissions and innumerable other studies and analyses. She is dreaming. The splendid specifics that she has identified for herself and for her blog readers in attempting to pin down a meaning of education, as edifying and important as they may be, are likewise of limited usefulness. Fitting a large number of indices, variables, attributes or processes into a definition for education gets a bit complicated, very quickly.
Michele Rhee seems to believe that education is defined by the passing of standardized tests and optimal behavioral performance as gauged by supposed experts or established criteria. Bill Gates would make the ability to fit into an industrial or technical organization and turn out useful products as a top priority and criteria. A personal friend by the name of Alvin Meinhold, who taught school decades ago prefers quoting a definition from English literature published in 1947. He quotes a character from a novel by John Horn Burns, entitled, Lucifer with a Book, who when establishing a legal trust to fund a new school says, “Education boy is not something to prepare you for life. That is a vulgar American error. It is something to take you out of life. Don’t you want to have some small kingdom of your own that no one can take away from you?”
This article will propose that education is ineffable; it must be experienced and lived and witnessed. Education, like beauty is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. It is not subject to easy detection or analysis. Words will never be available that can condense it into a neat replicable package. Methods and techniques will never be on hand to boil it down to a handy formula. Institutions will never exist that can mass produce it. The thoughts expressed in the previous quote from the novel mentioned in the last paragraph take us much further toward having an appreciation for the nuances and uncertain qualities of the educational process than any of the others in vogue.
Education is indeed one’s personal and private kingdom, however small or limited, which is truly unique and wholly unclassifiable. Everything we do to try to codify and quantify education puts at risk the very things we aspire to create in our efforts aimed at this elusive private human property.
We must discover ways to talk about the wide variety of things that we want young people to experience, learn and achieve, without allowing unproven assumptions to influence our decisions. The temptation to extrapolate from certain favored beliefs and superficial ideas about processes and policies in pursuit of something we blithely call education should not be permitted to entrap us in erroneous thinking that presupposes we will happen upon the right formula if only we follow the right leaders or take the right pathways. We have no choice but to trust the learner, the teacher, the parent and the culture, after we establish certain broad parameters for the unpredictable and unlimited opportunities we elect to provide.
The Potential for Potential Has Little Potential – If Truth Be Told
Another word that is bandied about with little regard for its potential for misuse is, “potential”. It has already been used once in this article, although with considerable more care than is typical. The failure of a child to live up to some theoretical or imagined potential is used as a weapon against the child or the parent and now even against the teacher, despite the utter meaninglessness of the concept in a school context or with regard to the child’s education.
No one has the slightest clue about the future directions, interests or capacities of a child, if truth be told. Albert Einstein’s father was told in essence, by a schoolmaster, that he was a poor student and would never succeed in any productive endeavor. One can find innumerable examples of other great figures in history with a similar prognosis by educators and supposed leaders. Today, we see many examples of people with Asperger’s Syndrome, autism, ADHD, savant conditions, dyslexia and other conditions, which have created issues in certain instructional or institutional settings, yet which have nevertheless failed to reflect their demonstrated capacity for excellence in a variety of fields and activities or their capabilities for adjusting to life as they encounter it.
The common over-use and misuse of the word potential in schools illustrates how little we know about the educational process and how easily we become distracted as a consequence of our adult or analytical perspectives. To suppose that a child’s potential is compromised by talking in class, daydreaming, spending too little time on assignments or homework and the like is an absurdity. One’s potential relative to some distant future is contingent on a nearly infinite range of factors. The needs, urges, interests, feelings, perceptions and ostensible lack of diligence that the child is experiencing in the present cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or mere distractions from some drive to achieve long-range goals. This is not to say that education does not ever require strict discipline and rapt attention. It does however indicate that education and potential are impossible to reconcile for anyone but the child and possibly her parents.
Potential is realized not solely by conforming to ideas and ideals presented from others or by becoming focused laser-like on a glorious future set of objectives to the exclusion of everything else, but by evolving as an individual through experiences that combine self-realization and self-expression with social participation and goal-directed activity. We should hope that each child’s potential will reflect varied activities, interests and endeavors integrated into a life that has sanguine meaning; the ‘potential’ for satisfaction and peacefulness in the present; striving toward growth within a group and family, and awareness of one’s own power to decide and to influence as well as be influenced.
Quite possibly the only thing we can say with near complete certainty is that education and life intersect when a receptive individual has the opportunity to explore and discover with the right mix of motivation and capability. Education may be part of a conscious or formal plan or program, or it may be purely spontaneous. However, it cannot be engineered, prescribed, coerced or purchased without the active and voluntary engagement of the subject.
None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that children should be given free rein and left strictly to their own devices. Not all learning is beneficial and not all learning is a part of education. Unfortunately, much of what is learned in school is superfluous gobbledygook. School is an artificial environment that in no way mirrors real life. Much that is learned is relative to a political and social hierarchy that poisons students’ outlook and perverts their attitudes toward both life and education.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say the following about education in their stellar book, Philosophy in the Flesh, “Education is not a thing; it’s an activity. Knowledge is not literally transmitted from teacher to student, and education is not merely the acquisition of particular bits of knowledge. Through education students who work at it become something different. It is what they become that is important.” Pg. 532
Serious people who care about children and who have some intuitive sense of what education feels like and how one achieves it must stop talking about it as if they can define or identify it. They must call out those people, such as Arne Duncan and Michele Rhee who pretend to have the answers that will provide education, if only we follow their lead down the primrose path.
There actually are researchers and scientists and others who have zeroed in on some extremely revealing and helpful cues about the learning processes and elemental language and brain interactions that are crucial to development and intellectual and social progress (first and foremost being the aforementioned Lakoff and Johnson). However, art and relationship, and experience and attitude, are not to be categorized and analyzed in the way that too many educators have assumed. Science can provide the framework but there is no method or formula that can fill in the blanks and spell out the steps that will assure education for any one individual or for any group. Curriculum from experts is a sure formula for disaster. Teaching is an art and a skill and a part of a special relationship that cannot be prescribed or programmed.
In the strictest sense the educator doesn’t educate and the teacher doesn’t teach. Our perception of these things almost universally revolves around a unidirectional effort on the part of a person with knowledge meant to gift it to the person who lacks that knowledge. If education is taking place however, there must be a two-way conversation and a melding of minds involving communication about what the student knows and an awareness that the student is in possession of crucial information, and a knowledge matrix to which the instructor can have only very limited access.
When the infant emerges from the womb, he knows something about what it is like living for nine months inside a womb and he quickly discovers what it is like to breathe and find nourishment, assuming he is properly cared for by adults. He was not taught; he learned from those experiences. When the baby discovers that crying or cooing elicits attention, that is not a lesson or the result of an educational scheme orchestrated by adults; it is a learning experience which she frequently initiates and in which she fully participates.
When the student hears that Columbus discovered America, if he is engaged and curious, he is adding that erroneous bit of knowledge to an enormous body of “embodied” knowledge already acquired in a short life that may later include the more accurate information that Columbus was preceded to these shores by any number of other explorers or adventurers or lost seafarers. The child’s mind/body is not a blank slate. The knowledge that is sourced externally via the symbols of language or art or numbers and maps, whether of adults and “experts” or of other children is never 100% reliable, 100% identical, or 100% foreign and unique.
Presumably, we want all children to become educated. Ironically, to achieve any approximation of that ideal, we must abandon our attempts to box it up, enrich it with vitamins, sweeten it with fun or exciting and distracting activities and games, and force feed it to students. We must figure out how to provide maximum opportunities with minimal interference and paternalistic influence. The education train left the station a long time ago and we need a new mode of transportation to catch up.
It’s an Art; It’s a Science; It’s a Mystery, and It’s Far Too Important to Leave to Experts
Webster correctly names education as a process. However, it is not uninterrupted and it is not a process that can be analyzed and duplicated like making cheese. It is a science also, according to them, although one that is not at all amenable to the same sort of experimentation and verification as other sciences, since it involves human, personal, social and psychological (and psycho-social) factors that are spread over decades, impossible to clearly distinguish from certain other factors.
We can say with complete confidence that merely attending schools or undergoing instruction for some period is inadequate to define education. We can also say that passing various tests cannot be a basis for distinguishing the educated from the uneducated. To Webster’s description that, it is to “impart knowledge and training to: develop mentally and morally by instruction” in their brief stab at defining the verb form, there are the clear implications for more questions than answers.
How much “knowledge or training” must be imparted to reach a given stage of education, or to prepare one for adulthood, or for a career or success or happiness? Under what circumstances, and toward what goals is one trained, or is training at all compatible with the sort of autonomy that is associated with education, adulthood, democracy, or liberty in the US? Training connotes parameters that are far narrower than the parameters of independent thought or personal moral and intellectual development.
Furthermore, meanings are subject to change and to varying interpretations, especially where beliefs, theories and practical matters collide. The definitions we accept for education on a popular level in one location today can have far reaching implications in different locations and at different times. Constructing a broadly acceptable and accurate definition that would satisfy at least a majority of discerning “educated” people, and that would encompass both what it means traditionally, as well as all that has recently been discovered about learning processes, knowledge, the human brain and mind, and culture, is not as easy as it may appear at first blush.
While it certainly does seem that there should logically be some working definition for something as significant, familiar and universally desired as education, as indicated earlier, we cannot even get past the one-yard line in that effort. Definition with any precision at all is actually too much to ask of anyone.
There has been immense progress recently in all of the sciences dealing with human growth and development and especially in neuroscience and psychology, along with leaps and bounds in the science of education itself. Unfortunately, impenetrable barriers exist that prevent meaningful long-term application of those discoveries in the field.
Still, for those who are employed in the “field of education” or those anxious to ensure that some less rigorous or accurate description is not allowed to displace or degrade essential ideas and beliefs about education as a state of being worthy of emulation and great effort, it is important to state or restate with somewhat more accuracy what we believe the word to encompass.
What Education is NOT
Unfortunately, we may have to settle for using what we believe education NOT to be as our starting point if we aren’t satisfied with the simple yet elegant description of, “a kingdom of one’s own”. That would be most of what occurs daily in schools around the country. After we dispense with all that extraneous nonsense, we may be better able to isolate some things we DO want and can strive to provide for.
Webster, correctly, also includes training in their definition of education, but a very crucial distinction must be made. Although training is clearly an important element of learning and education, training can be and often is inimical to and incompatible with education.
Training, such as in how to brush hair and teeth and in toilet use and other basic hygiene for a child, or instruction in how to operate a sophisticated computerized device, an appliance, or a motorized device, etc., contributes to one’s overall skill in navigating life’s daily chores and joys, and as such is an integral part of one’s education.
However, parents and educators who mean well but have something other than education as their objective, i.e., rigid discipline, “tough love”, training in religious dogma, social conformity, political correctness, etc., can all too easily become confused with respect to training that does not advance educational goals and that is in direct opposition to the values and to other essential skills that are fundamental to what we have typically conceived of as education.
School as we know it entails much more training and far less education than is apparent. This is an incurable property of any institution that assembles students within an authoritarian hierarchy and where they are not present as a consequence of their own initiative or voluntary choice. This is precisely why we never achieve the sort of results we anticipate from most of our schools and why many students are well trained but not educated in a more accurate and traditional sense, however one chooses to define education. Training must be encompassed within a framework that is focused on the individual and that is an integral part of a personal pursuit toward a broader objective.
Ultimately, it is up to each of us to decide what we would include or exclude in defining education and how we wish to pursue it for ourselves and our progeny. This is possibly the most important choice we are enabled in making in a democracy. In making that choice and extending the choices to our children we have our best means of conveying the significance of democracy and personal autonomy.
The thing that Americans will have to acknowledge, sooner or later, is that schooling and education are not synonymous and are often incompatible. Schooling frequently undermines education and interferes with the process in myriad ways.
Schools have traditionally been about things other than education and they have built-in features that are inimical to the sort of personal development ordinarily associated with education. In trying to define and engineer education, many people working in schools defeat their own purposes. This will change only through a comprehensive revolution in which myths are debunked, laws and policies are changed or removed, and many more people become engaged more directly in discovering what children need to realize their intellectual, social, creative and other capacities.